In my memory, my grandmother's town is always shrouded in a haze of sea water and rain. Neither was truly in motion, just hovered in the air like smoke.
The visits had three acts.
First, the arrival at the house, where old cigarettes and cheap vanilla candles fought for dominance in the stale air. We went through the same ritual of greetings, dry kisses, and small talk, and I traced patterns in the dusty moss of the carpets, always imagining ants and mites and other small, crawling things in the forest of fibers.
Then we would eat dinner at a restaurant that must have been nice once, but was now gracelessly decaying in situ. The whole town was this way, but it was especially obvious there, where you could watch the greasy dust pile up on the artificial ivy and cloud the frames of the portraits on the wall. My grandmother told me once that they were famous people who had eaten at the restaurant, but she didn't seem to know who they were any more than I did. by then, they were hardly visible at all-- person shaped blurs under smeared glass.
In the final act, we went to the churchyard, where we could finally breathe fresh air. You could see the relief in everyone's bodies when we paid our bill and walked out-- fists uncurling, shoulders sinking down, long deep breaths of outside air.
My grandmother and my parents would have long visits at the graves of my grandfather and his parents, and I was left to my own devices. I was always a wanderer. I liked to map the boundaries of my world with my feet, working out the paths and passages in aimless spirals.
I don't remember when I found her. Perhaps I found her every time. Each memory is shot through with that sickening thrill of discovery, of seeing something forbidden.
I rounded the corner at the back of the chapel, just out of my family's sight, and she was always there. tucked away in her own grotto, cruder and rougher than the rest of the stonework on the place. you could see the outline of some sainted woman, her hands folded in prayer. but the years of sea and rain had eaten away at her, carved away fabric and flesh to reveal more stone, cracked and fissured like bleached coral. her face was gone completely, just flat, rough stone framed by the carved strands of her hair.
All the games I played in my head vanished when I found her. I would stand for what felt like hours in that spot, staring up at her. i thought that perhaps all divine things looked like that on the inside-- strange, monstrous bones wreathed in cloth and light.
When I was eleven or twelve, I laid one of my hands in one of the fissures on what might have once been her chest. it didn't feel like stone. it felt soft and damp, with the kind of putrid fragility found in a beached sea creature that has just begun to rot. I pulled my hand away and ran back to my parents.
That night, as the rain poured outside my window, I dreamed that the membranes of my skin stretched and dissolved, revealing the colony of alien sea life roiling inside me. as it drained and dried, i felt my body honeycomb with impossible rot. I woke up with the taste of sea water at the back of my throat.
I was fourteen when my grandmother died. She didn't want a service, and so they just entombed her in the churchyard, sight unseen. I felt a mix of longing and relief when my mother told me there would be no service, no visits.
Six months ago, my mother died. In an uncharacteristically sentimental move, she asked that her and my father's ashes be scattered in that churchyard, over the family plot.
The cloud of them settled in the damp, still air over the family plot, and I stood there in the detritus, waiting to feel some sort of catharsis. it never came, and perhaps that's why i went wandering among the graves of strangers, moving in my own familiar spiral. I felt bile rising higher in my throat with each squeeze of my heart as I turned the corner, towards the back of the chapel.
There was nothing there. just a wall of gray stone, worn smooth by sea and centuries.
In my dreams, I tasted the sea again.
i originally wrote this over a lunch break at work in July of 2021, inspired by a picture i saw on twitter of a statue damaged by sea water. it's pretty small, but actually finishing something is kind of an achievement, for me!